Vancouver-based interior designer Robert Bailey is much sought after for the thoughtful, measured approach he takes to his work. As Calgary designer Douglas Cridland noted when Robert was named Western Living’s Interior Designer of the Year, “while others may choose the right fabric or the right carpet, Robert’s work truly shows you the layers – the work – that goes into making something great.”
At Provide, we count ourselves fortunate to work with Robert on his projects, but also to call him a friend.
We recently caught up with him to chat about his work, his love of decoration, and a few of his favourite lines at Provide.
Of course we’ve known you for a long time, but tell us what got you into interior design.
You know, I was trying to calculate something else and I thought, Oh, it’s 42 years now! It’s a very long time. So how did I get here? I went to art school for a year. I always had an interest in interiors, even though I don’t think I even knew what an interiors designer was. I did have an aunt who was very glamorous – she was the fashion editor for the Province newspaper. She had always had a very glamorous home, and she hired interior designers. And my mum was pretty artistic. So I guess it was just sort of in my DNA. You know, I used to play around with the stuff in our house. So I ended up just deciding, well, maybe that would be something that you could actually make a living at. I went to what was then Douglas College – which is now Kwantlen – and did the program locally.
Vancouver was a really small city back in the 1979, more of a working-class city. There were a few premier residential interior designers. Robert Ledingham, obviously – he had an established career by then, and he was actually at one of my crits when I was in school. So I was aware of him, but I came out of school and there wasn’t as much opportunity in residential, so I ended up going into commercial. And I was in commercial interior design up until about 2005, working mostly with offices and corporate hospitality, some retail, some food and beverage, all of that stuff. I worked with Architectura, which was a very big firm at the time.
In 2005, Stantec bought Architectura. And I also came on an opportunity to design a penthouse of someone who had seen my work. So I decided to leave and just start my own firm. It was really very organic. It was something that was always in the back of my mind, but something I didn’t really plan to do. It just sort of all happened.
And you’ve intentionally stayed small as a firm, and hands-on in your work. You’ve always wanted to stay close to being the one the does the design.
For sure. Because where I came from – when I was working for the larger firms, there was always the very large teams, lots of staffing issues, keeping people busy. And I really didn’t want to be just a manager. I wanted to keep designing. So to do that, for me, I think I had to stay quite small. Otherwise it’s too distant. You’re distracted by getting new work or the marketing aspect of things.
Can you talk about who influences your design aesthetic?
I think that you cannot help but be heavily influenced by the time that you developed your own voice. I think probably first, it was all the classics, Bauhaus, all that kind of stuff. But also layered into that was the more contemporary people at that time, people like Ward Bennett. And Robert Ledingham certainly had that same sort of aesthetic, almost a commercial aesthetic brought into residential.
It’s a removal, an editing, a refinement. Looking at the home more than pieces, sort of a big-picture first and then working on down. It’s kind of a reverse way of working, thinking from a planning point of view early on. My main influence is architecture – I’m always fascinated by architecture. Arthur Erickson, locally – I think he was so under-appreciated, even though he’s celebrated here. He was a remarkable architect.
I wanted to pick up on that idea of “big picture, then working on down.” You often talk about when you’re designing a space, that there’s a real holistic story it, whether it’s a penthouse or a 10,000-square-foot home. How do those stories develop?
You know, you almost have to adopt your clients, intellectually and emotionally when you do this work. You really kind of become them, and you see through their eyes. I think that is what designers do, that you walk through your day and think, what do they do? Where did they read a book? Where did they have coffee? What is the routine in the morning? It’s not a checklist, but just something that I would say is intuitive when you’re designing a space. You look through these things, and then you see the errors as well. You can see where that just won’t work, because you know them as best you can. And fortunately, that works—I’ve had wonderful compliments from people saying that, you know, no one’s ever really got them as much as that house did. Which is fantastic.
It’s a less a story about design, and more story about the person who’s occupying it, and their viewpoints and their things.
Speaking of their things, I wonder if we can then talk a bit about accessories and the role they play in your design—where do the details come in? And why is Provide a place you partner with for your projects?
I have known David and Robert forever. And so we share personal friendship, but we also share an aesthetic. I’m always interested in accessories, and Vancouver was severely lacking before Provide opened. I love the fact that that it’s more artisan based, and that every piece is different. That’s what you want to bring to a project. You want to bring uniqueness. You want to bring pieces that are special, not just the same piece that someone else has. And I love the fact that they’ve evolved as well, and they continue to evolve.
We’re always trying to make everything as special as we can for our clients, and for them to have a unique point of view. So to be able to bring together accessories and mix pieces with things that clients already have, vintage pieces and sentimental pieces – you can tip something to a much more contemporary direction by adding those kind of wonderful pieces that they have with scale and form.
Are there any lines there that stand out for you?
I love pottery – I was once a very bad potter. I never had time to become really good at it. I keep telling myself I’m going back, and oddly enough, I was always going to do it with Robert – we always talked about taking pottery together. That would have been lovely.
So I am very much enthralled by pottery. I love the forms. And when you can bring in, as I was saying, client pieces, and then you bring in some new work and you start to layer them on to the pieces that you’ve developed… It’s really all about those forms and how they interact. As much as our work is perhaps considered quite minimal, I really love decoration.
Are there certain lines that tend to be your go-to?
I love all of their work. For me, whenever I think of them, I think of Rina Menardi, and some of the leather pieces as well. I love Martha—I love all the Sturdy pieces really. I love the resin – you know, when I think of Martha, I think of Provide. The way the store is so beautifully edited, it reads as a collection rather than a shop of things. I mean, I’m sure people just go in hang out, to look. It’s kind of like gallery going, being in that store.
Thank you Robert for speaking with us and for sharing some insights into your design practice – we look forward to many more years of working with you.